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Professor's Coffee Machine Inspired by Breaking Bad

Mills coffee feature

The award-winning television series Breaking Bad inspired Mount St. Mary's University Assistant Professor Isaac Mills, Ph.D., to concoct a “Blue High” blend of his own. Mills modeled his chem-lab coffee machine after the apparatus Gale Boetticher shows off to meth-cooking chemist Walter White in the sixth episode of the third season. “My God, that is the best coffee I’ve ever tasted,” Walter croons. The two bask in a shared scientist moment as the vacuum reflux distillation setup frames the scene. “Sumatran beans,” Gale says, humbly sharing the credit for his genius.

coffee-collage-2.jpg“That fancy coffee setup in Breaking Bad seemed to have some merit,” Mills thought. After he watched the episode, he began reading and researching the scientific basis of the equipment and its feasibility. He learned that passing water over grounds at a high temperature extracts the molecules responsible for the flavor. “But hot water on the grounds, combined with oxygen in the air, leads to rapid degradation of those flavor molecules.” The trick, Mills discovered, was to cool the water a bit so it’s warm rather than hot. But when that happens, the flavor doesn’t get extracted from the grounds. “To get around this, chemists use something called a Soxhlet extractor which continually rewashes the solids with condensed vapor so over time you get as much flavor out as possible while still minimizing off flavors” Mills explains. While the grounds play a huge role in the quality of what comes out—his brew does taste smooth. As Mills looks at his coffee machine, he jokes that Maxwell House still tastes like Maxwell House.  

Inspiration struck last year when Mills was taking inventory of the materials in his lab. He noticed an unused Soxhlet extractor and quickly found the rest of the glassware needed. Like a true creator, he collected the materials and embarked on the challenge. Although students weren’t part of the initial building of the coffee machine, they will start a coffee club next semester—and they’ll make use of the brewer to see how factors like temperature and vacuum pressure control the flavor of the coffee. Soon students will experiment by roasting their own beans and grinding them; Mills is excited to taste test. The next step is vacuum control which will serve as an even finer temperature control. He explains that since oxygen is needed to degrade the flavor during extraction, removing most of it will probably improve the flavor. “It may turn out to be a poor-man’s nitro-brew coffee setup!” he exclaims.

The coffee machine was just the latest in a line of sustainability efforts which incorporate ingenuity into the curriculum and the classroom. While the department doesn’t have the budget to go after most of the custom equipment used in other labs, they build it from what they do have. “Since we know what information we’re looking for and we have an idea of what the solution looks like, we can basically reverse-engineer a similar working solution for our own purposes,” Mills says. When asked why students are drawn to working with him, he says: “I think it’s a combination of the fact that they get to work on the things they find interesting and important—like solar energy and catalysis.”

The creative energy of making their own lab equipment entices students to learn in a new way and be thoughtful creators who are inspired by a variety of media—including award-winning pop-culture television shows. “It’s a bit of a madhouse in here since we make a bunch of our own equipment,” he laughs. “I think one of our unofficial lab mottos is becoming: ‘If it looks stupid but works, it isn’t stupid.’”

Mills recently applied this thinking to teaching labs where they have replaced some of the toxic or harmful chemicals typically used in undergraduate labs with more benign ones that illustrate the same chemical concepts. “The goal,” Mills says, “is to try to make our curriculum as relevant to the real-world chemistry while minimizing exposure hazards and choosing topics students will love. Somehow we try to do all that using what’s on hand.” His curiosity to understand and motivation to engineer have enabled him to steward the university’s resources and captivate the attention and admiration of his students—beyond basic percolation.

In that same episode of Breaking Bad, as they’re working together in the lab, Gale recites Walt Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to Walt:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Will rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 

Like Whitman’s poem, Mills’ teaching style emphasizes the difference between academic and experimental learning—knowledge and wisdom. While chemistry emphasizes the interactions, relationships, reactions and changes between substances, it also uses these to form new ones. The magic is always in the making.